Marjan van Aubel’s Solar Design Expertise Zooms Ahead

In a mesmerizing installation at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, the Dutch innovator reimagines the silhouette of a Lexus concept car using organic photovoltaics that demonstrate the exciting scientific and aesthetic frontiers of solar technology.

Marjan van Aubel. Photography by Steve Benisty

Marjan van Aubel has been on a mission to demystify solar design for over a decade now. She first sparked an interest in green technology while studying at London’s Royal College of Art and soon after collaborated with the EPFL_ECAL lab in Lausanne, Switzerland, where she worked on developing a flexible solar cell application. Her award-winning Amsterdam practice is constantly investigating new ways to “inspire people to think differently about the future of solar technology,” she tells Surface, beyond standard rooftop panels. She outfitted the Netherlands Pavilion at the Dubai Expo 2020 with patterned solar cell skylights, launched the inaugural Solar Biennale at cultural institutions across the Netherlands, and even published a book, called Solar Futures, that features hard-hitting interviews with solar experts like textile innovator Pauline van Dongen and companies like Lightyear, a solar-powered vehicle in which every square inch of surface area is intended to harvest energy.

The latter innovation perhaps forecasts her latest undertaking, a to-scale solar sculpture that reimagines the Lexus Future Zero-Emission Catalyst concept car as an interactive experience in the gardens of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami. Titled 8 Minutes and 20 Seconds in reference to the time it takes sunlight to reach the Earth, the true-to-size model’s silhouette is formed using sheets of organic photovoltaics, or third-generation solar cells that are transparent yet brimming with color, and accumulate energy into batteries discreetly nestled within the sculpture’s base.

The electric battery platform is “the sculpture’s heart both literally and conceptually,” van Aubel tells Surface. “It illuminates the piece and responds to the presence of visitors with changing color, light, and sound that create a dynamic, ever-changing experience.” It’s both an impressive demonstration of what smart solar design can accomplish—not only scientifically, but aesthetically—and a welcome reprieve from bustling Miami Art Week. At unexpected intervals, the installation springs to life in an ephemeral spectacle designed by spatial experience firm Random Studios. Light and graphics cascade throughout as an ambient, birdsong-embellished melody crescendos, mirroring the dynamics of a car in motion and offering a sensory glimpse into the energy of driving. 

Below, van Aubel walks us through her thinking behind 8 Minutes and 20 Seconds and shares how solar technology can shape automotive design in the future.


Photography by Steve Benisty

How did the collaboration with Lexus come about?

My relationship with Lexus began with the 2023 Lexus Design Award program, when I was brought on as a mentor to emerging designers. It was a phenomenal opportunity to guide the development of exciting, impactful ideas from emerging creatives who had conceived of new products that build towards a better, more sustainable future. Through that experience, I felt a real synergy with our design ethos and values. After that program, they approached me to design a sculptural installation inspired by the LF-ZC concept car. It’s been  great to build on our shared exploration of high-quality design that embraces and highlights the potential and future of carbon-neutral technology, and demonstrates that a sustainable future can also be a beautiful, exciting, and well-designed future.

What about the LF-ZC Lexus Battery Electric Vehicle proved particularly inspiring when ideating 8 Minutes and 20 Seconds

First and foremost, I was interested in the electric battery platform that powers the vehicle and is the core element of sustainable technology. This battery is the sculpture’s heart both literally and conceptually as it illuminates the piece and responds to the presence of visitors with changing color, light, and sound that create a dynamic and ever-changing experience. The car’s body is imaged in translucent sheets echoing the beauty of the shapes and contours of the car, it also contains OPV (organic solar cells) to harness energy from the sun. One thing you can’t see, but that I really loved, is that the sculpture’s base is built with bamboo, which is a super sustainable material and is used in fibers and other elements of the car.

Photography by Steve Benisty

How do solar power and other sun-related themes shape your artistic expression here?

The Organic Photovoltaic (OPV) cells throughout are fully functional and help power the installation. I’ve previously used these vibrant sheets as a material in other projects, including Ra, a series of solar tapestries I created and named after the Egyptian sun god. For 8 Minutes and 20 Seconds, I was excited to bring the OPVs into an artistic context again because it’s a great way to embed the possibilities of clean energy into a beautiful design that leverages the sun both for energy and aesthetic dynamism.

What did the collaboration with Random Studio look like? What did you learn about spatial experience design from them?

This was my first time collaborating with Random Studio, but I’ve admired their work for a long time. It was amazing collaborating with them to build out the design, especially in the interactive technology, which is really where they are field leaders. They have so much expertise creating immersive experiences that draw people in and engage them, and it was fascinating to learn the nuances of that area. We also had a terrific production team in Matchless Builds and sound design from Sabina Charfauros and Malloy James, which enabled us to build an experience that was really different for my studio. This team opened up new possibilities and considerations for how to consider the design of future projects that highlight the potential of solar in different, muti-sensory ways.

Photography by Steve Benisty

Has working on 8 Minutes and 20 Seconds with Lexus influenced how you view vehicle design?

For sure! One of the most exciting elements was getting to learn directly about the vehicle from one of the designers, Viviana Hohenstein. When I was told I’d be in touch with one of the designers directly, I wasn’t expecting to find such a young, cool, innovative female designer in the automotive space. It really changed my perspective on the field, and was fascinating to learn directly from her how deeply considered every aspect of the vehicle is, from the form and functionality to materiality.  

What do you hope Miami Art Week attendees take away from experiencing this?

The core mission of my practice is to inspire people to think differently about the future of solar technology, and to see the potential for a carbon-neutral future that is beautiful and intentionally designed.  By creating an interactive, playful, and ever-changing installation, I’m hoping that people start to consider what sustainable design can be and look like in a different way, and start to envision this area of the field along with us. Miami is a perfect place for this, as a place with so much sunlight—the future for solar is really visible everywhere you look! The power of design! 

Photography by Steve Benisty

How do you think solar design can shape automotive design in the future? 

I see mobility, like other areas of design, as a frontier for sustainable technology. There are many opportunities for solar design to be incorporated in automation, and I’m excited to see how others will further innovate in this area.

What are you currently working on? What’s next for you? 

I’m focusing on expanding the offerings of Sunne, the solar-powered lamp also on view at the ICA (and available for sale on-site at their gift shop). And planning the next Solar Biennale! 

8 Minutes and 20 Seconds will be on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami (61 NE 41st St) until Dec. 17.

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